In a few weeks, on October 14th, my mother would have turned 83. She died in 2011, a few weeks after her 78th birthday. Five years later, I thought I would share her story. This is a multi-part story, and I'll include some of my favorite pictures, including the first one. Mom and I had a difficult relationship at times, filled with arguments, disagreements, and love, and this picture showed me a side of her I'd never seen when she was alive. I hope you enjoy meeting her...with love, Doc
“The Irish mother had a reputation for ruling the family with an iron fist,
being the unquestioning transmitter of...Church authority.”
Monica, McGoldrick, Ethnicity and Family Therapy
She read Dale Carnegie, Malcolm X, and Dear Abby with equal fascination and curiosity. She was a teacher, a public relations and marketing whiz, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a grandmother, an aunt, and finally a great-grandmother. She was a devout Catholic, a Kennedy Democrat who in later years voted Republican, a child of World War II, a smoker for much of her life, and a devoted friend and family member. She loved dancing, the beach, good food, good clothes, her family and friends, the Catholic Church, travel, and good conversation.
She was an Irish Mother Superior, and this brief snapshot in words doesn’t begin to do her justice. Pat/Patsy/Smitty/Patricia was my mother, my teacher, my opponent, my heritage. As I rediscover and explore her through pictures, her own words, and my memories, I hope the essence of Mom will shine through and live again. She was the matriarch of our clan, and she lives on in all of us.
In some ways Mom’s father took over being mother as well as father. Her mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, helped out when she wasn’t playing bingo, but as she wrote in a newspaper remembrance of her dad,
...he never asked us to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. That included doing dinner dishes once a week...Even when he got up at 6:00 am, banked the furnace, drove to Youngstown to work, and returned at 6:30 that evening for dinner. If it was Friday night, it was his night for dishes...he didn’t know the meaning of the word chauvinism, as he cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed (even our little fancy dresses), sewed, and canned vegetables and fruit from our victory garden. He became so skilled in the domestic field, he could play cards all afternoon and serve turkey dinner to 28 guests the same night.
Story published in Post-Gazette North, June 15, 1978
Mom always tried to teach us to dance (unsuccessfully), and said she and her brothers used to dance all the time when they were growing up. Imagine our surprise when we read the rest of the story in her autobiography.
My first recollections of any kind of schooling is dancing school...my mother and father had great aspirations for me. And their delight knew no bounds when they discovered at the tender age of four I was double jointed. They immediately enrolled me in Peggy Neenan's School of Dance, and I was indoctrinated in the fine art of ballet, tap dance and acrobatics. Since this was the great era of Shirley Temple, my mother went a bit further and had pictures taken of me at the local newspaper office for modeling.
The truth was I had stage fright. I could easily do all the tricks my teachers had taught me and know my routine for what was known in those days as a circumse or recital, but as soon as I got on stage I forgot everything and did anything that came to mind. In fact I nearly had the piano player going crazy trying to figure out what I was up to. And oh, my poor instructor standing in the wings trying to prompt me to a one handed handstand fell on deaf ears as far as I was concerned.
Uncle George...wanted me to perform for a Christmas party for his V.F.W. post. The plans were for me to take a trolley over to their house right from school and to have dinner with them and then we were to proceed to the evening's festivities. Well I did take the trolley, but...I got talking to one of the most interesting girls from the academy. Mary Lou Simms was her name and her mother was the proprietor of the ice cream store at the foot of the school. It seemed like an ideal time for Mary Lou and I to become better acquainted, especially since I had been trying to cultivate this friendship for quite some time.
Note: I got an email from my Aunt Helen, Mom's only sister, with these additions/corrections:
Thought you might be interested to know that your mother's birth name was Patricia Ann Jane Smith. (Mildred was her confirmation name) Like me, she was given two middle names, mine being Mildred Helen Pius. ( I was named for Pope Pius 11th) My name was shortened to Helen after my mother's death because apparently it was a difficult reminder of the loss of my mother and too much for my dad to handle. I was 2 1/2 when she died and your mom was four years older than I. Dave was 18 months and Milt was one day. (Dec. 26, 1939) My mother developed a blood clot and those days they did not how to treat or dissolve them.
Also, the picture you labeled to be my dad, your mom and Donald - actually is not brother Donald, but is my cousin, Charles Bond. Also, the picture you show of your mom at the end of your first blog had something to do with the fact that she was a child model for Kaufmann's Dept. store.
When I leave here I will walk out the door still shaking inside. I will drive home and take refuge in my apartment, take comfort in the fact that I have locks on the door and that I’m surrounded by military folk who live in the other apartments and are there to study at Defense Language Institute in Monterey.
It didn’t even occur to me not to call 911. It didn’t occur to me not to acknowledge that I thought I could recognize the young man, even if my description wasn’t perfect or in the greatest detail. When I spoke with one of the residents in our transitional housing program, who had also been around, that individual said they told the person with them to look away, so they couldn’t identify the shooter. Survival instincts, learned on the streets,
I can still feel the adrenalin coursing through my body – is it in the veins? Funny, I have no idea. All I know is I can feel it. I can type, but there’s a weird kind of numbness in my fingers. I’m hungry, and wondering when I’ll be able to go home and eat. Wanting in the worst way to get some comfort food, and knowing that no matter what I get, it will be hard to swallow it. And I won’t get comfort food, because I won’t want to stop for anything on this trip home. Once I get in that car I want to go straight home.
This isn’t what I’d planned for my blog. But I have to do something as I wait. Don’t I?
One thing I didn’t know about the chronically homeless before I worked here (those who are homeless again and again, not just someone who loses their home for a short time in an emergency), is that often they experience mental illness of some kind. In Chinatown it was determined by one of the local service providers that more than 90% of the community suffered from some form of mental illness or another. Many of these folks are not capable of holding down a job or taking care of themselves, yet the system makes it incredibly hard for anyone else to take care of them.
Did you know that many substance abuse programs won’t take people with mental illness, and many mental health facilities won’t take people with substance abuse issues. So if you have a dual diagnosis (both mental illness and substance abuse) then there are very few places you can go. There are groups trying to address that, but it’s a serious problem, with not a lot of help out there now.
So the folks living all around this neighborhood are the least able to take care of themselves, and in the midst of that, we have the drug dealers who work on the streets of Chinatown, but generally don’t sleep here.
According to media speculation, we have a gang war over drug territory here in Chinatown. We used to hear about the shootings or stabbings or fights that happened at night or on the weekends. Now it’s in the middle of the day, the middle of the week.
This is the first time I’ve written today. Saturday is normally one of my days to dive into the second draft of my novel, but not today. Tomorrow, maybe. It’s not as if I spent all day thinking about the shooting. I guess I should now say the homicide. The police never did call to ask about my seeing the shooter. The news said there were a number of witnesses, and they probably had some that actually saw the shooting, which I did not. Okay by me.
I did some of my usual Saturday things – went to the laundromat, watched the IndyCar qualifying for tomorrow’s race, played games on my iPad, visited Animal Friends Rescue Project and played with one of the puppies for a bit. I didn’t go write at Asilomar, but I did go down to the beach for a bit. There were some sea otters hanging out offshore.
I love sea otters. I could spend all day watching them at Monterey Aquarium; I love the way they float on the water so in the waves you can see their noses and head, and their toes (I don’t think they’re really toes, but from a distance, who cares?). Like many wild animals, they are beautiful and appealing and do not want to play with you.
The only exception I’ve ever seen to that were the squirrels and baby spotted skunks at Tassajara. I’ve had a squirrel jump up on my lap while I was reading, and place its front paws on my arm and look up into my face as if to say, “Well, don’t you have a treat for me?” I never did, because I know it’s not good to feed them, but boy, that one was sure cute. The spotted skunk babies, during my last summer at Tassajara, became so comfortable around humans they would skitter around under and over foot in the dining room, trying to find scraps.
It seems crazy that these things exist in the same world, and they do. In an episode of West Wing, President Bartlet says of some home-grown terrorists, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”
The young man yesterday who killed another young man apparently burned his fingers on the barrel of the gun, that’s why I saw it in his hands – it was too hot to hide in his pocket or jeans. An experienced killer would have known better. That doesn’t excuse him, nor does it mean he shouldn’t be caught and take responsibility for what he did. But he wasn’t born wanting to commit a murder. No one is.
I don’t have any great wisdom around any of this. I just wanted to share it. I’m grateful that I can.
Take care – seriously, take care,
I figured since my guest post on Writer Unboxed was up on Sunday the 11th, it might be overkill for me to do a post here this week as well. So Tex (Arianne Tex Thompson), author and instructor for the November workshop agreed to do this week's blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did . See you next week, Doc
When you've made it your mission to be amazing, you have to amaze so much longer and harder than you ever imagined.
Really. I've been amazing for at least a year now, and pretty good for at least three more before that. And y'all, it is EXHAUSTING.
But exhausting isn't so bad, when you've used yourself up in the spirit of something tremendous. Exhausting is a damn fine feeling, when the world is lining up to compliment you on the awesomeness of your sauce.
The real sticker is when you invite the spoon-wielders of the world to take a taste, and they slup and smack and say, "Oh, that's nice!" And then move on along. Or maybe they don't even slup. Maybe they take a glance, a whiff, and walk right on by.
That is a harder thing to handle. You start wondering what's wrong with your recipe. You start thinking that maybe your sauce isn't awesome at all. But how can you fix it? What's missing? You were sure you'd gotten the roux just right this time – have you lost your sense of taste? Are you doomed to a life of floury mediocrity?
The nice thing about sauce is that it gets thicker, more potent, the longer you leave it simmering. Sometimes the ingredients are just right – it only needs time.
And that is a teeth-sucking shame – because it means you can't be amazing one day of the week, and then baseline-average the rest of the time. You can't phone it in when you're tired. We have meatless Monday and casual Friday, but there's no try-hard Tuesday. Every person who walks through your extended-metaphorical doors might be a first-time customer – who's going to turn into a last-time customer if their buttered grits happen to come topped with a pube-garnish.
I was always a kid who believed in the truth of the books I read. My copy of David and the Phoenix was hidden from my older sister, lest she find out about the Phoenix, and tell the grown-ups, who would then ruin everything. I was also certain that the only reason I couldn’t fly when I jumped off my bed was because Peter Pan wasn’t there to scatter Tinkerbelle’s fairy dust on me.
When I read in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius that stories teach us how to navigate life, it made me look back at some of those books that most influenced me. They are imprinted on my mind and heart as are few things in life – I can even remember my first library card number – J694 from the old Perry-Highland Library.
That’s where I discovered the books of Albert Payson Terhune. They were in the adult section, but they were dog stories, so I read them. And if I didn’t completely understand everything he wrote, I understood enough to learn the important things.
My first Terhune book was Further Adventures of Lad. It was the second of his three books about Lad, his first and greatest collie, and it remains my favorite to this day. It was one of my earliest encounters with death; the book begins with Lad’s arrival at The Place, and ends with his death on the veranda some sixteen years later.
Of course I’d encountered death in Black Beauty – a couple of humans died, but more important, the mare Ginger, Black Beauty’s friend and sometime companion, died. However, while Ginger’s death was sad, Black Beauty lived on and had a happy ending.
Lad was different. I met Lad as a young puppy in the early pages of the book, and watched him grow up in this strange new world. He found a mate, had a son, and experienced heartbreak when his mate was killed by a reckless driver. By the time I’d reached the end of the book, Lad was family. In the final chapter he is old. In his old age he becomes friends with the child of a laborer on The Place, and he protects her from her brutal father. Thanks to the exertion, his weary heart gives out and he dies.
I still cry when I read it. Lad died almost a hundred years ago, Terhune wrote about it 94 years ago, and I’m still reading it, still crying over it, still learning from it. What did I learn and how did it help me to navigate my life?
I learned that death is a natural part of life. There will be grief and loss, and we continue. We hold the loved ones in our hearts and keep living our lives; we are forever changed because of having known them. It’s not a fearful thing. Lad fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Even through my childish tears, I felt the rightness of his ultimate rest.
I learned that the body may be old and frail, yet the spirit and courage enable us to do what seems impossible. Steve Haskin once quoted a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon in writing about the great racehorse, Tiznow, at the end of his racing career - “Our spirits shall be the stouter, our hearts more fierce, our courage the greater, though our might lessens…”
Terhune wrote his first dog book, Lad: A Dog in 1919. That was his most famous and well-loved book, and it’s had over 80 printings. The pictures on this page come from a website dedicated to Terhune, his dogs, and Sunnybank (known in his books as The Place): http://www.sunnybankcollies.us/ One of the amazing things on the website is the reprint from the New York Times of an obituary of another of Terhune’s dogs, Wolf, who died saving the life of a homeless stray. While exploring that website and some other online info, I discovered home movies taken of Terhune, his wife, and some of the collies: http://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A17256
It was incredibly moving to see them alive, to see Terhune’s eyes looking into the camera, and to watch his interaction with the dogs. It was interesting, too, because based on his writing, he was a bit of a misogynist. One line occurred in almost every book I read of his: “All dogs die too soon; most humans don’t die soon enough.” He wrote in the early 1900’s, and his writing is laced with phrases and statements that are racist and full of class snobbery. Seems ironic, given that he was the son of a clergyman, but he reflected the common view of men of his background at that time. Seeing him on film, I began to see him as a real human being, though in a world almost as foreign to me as another country.
The rest of the week we were in and out of New York for the theatre, but no matter what else I did, I tried to get over to Sunnybank for a least an hour or so every day. Toward the end of the week, there was one day it had snowed during the night and I was disoriented by the snow covering the grass and the rocks. I couldn’t find Lad’s grave at first, and it didn’t matter that I’d seen it the previous three or four days. I needed to find it again, to pay homage to Lad one last time before we left.
What matters is that Terhune shared stories about Lad, stories that thrilled and moved me, and subtly taught me many of the ideals I still try to live by. The phrase “gay courage” is not a description of a gritting the teeth and getting through it kind of courage. It’s more akin to the panache of Cyrano, or the bravado of Butch and Sundance. It combines an internal toughness with joie de vivre into one indomitable spirit.
As I write those last few sentences, I can’t say I feel I’ve been able to live up to Lad’s teaching. Yet if I’ve learned one thing from Lad, it’s that whether or not I succeed isn’t what matters. What matters is how I live as I try.
That’s why I write. To in some way, share my stories with the rest of the world, and hope that there will come from my work a Lad or a d’Artagnan to inspire the readers navigating the course of their own lives.
Look for my guest post on Writer Unboxed on Sunday, September 11th: http://writerunboxed.com/
Carol (Doc) Dougherty
An avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop